TORONTO — By now, you’ve surely heard of ChatGPT. If you aren’t already using it, you probably know someone who is, whether to draft a resume, write code or simply generate daily recipes.
The artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, which first launched in November 2022 by OpenAI, has quickly ingrained itself into everyday life, across all industries, and travel is no different. AI has been used in travel for several years now, often in the form of chatbots that serve as intuitive personal assistants when booking flights and hotels online. But ChatGPT feels different, more mainstream. For one thing, anyone can use it, and for free, which makes it incredibly accessible. Also, it’s super easy to use: simply go to the website, https://chat.openai.com/, or download the app, create an account, enter instructions in the text bar and that’s that. And lastly, it can do so many different things. As a large language model (LLM), it can do everything from write essays, translate text and compose love songs, to solve math problems, give relationship advice and yes, plan travel itineraries.
For these reasons, critics argue that ChatGPT poses a real risk to livelihoods, with intuitive abilities that can one day replace humans in day to day operations. Travel agents, for one, are among those who may be impacted, as the tool can already plan entire travel itineraries and compare flights, hotels, rental cars and other travel services. But this isn’t the first time the role of travel agents has been called into question – the same concerns were raised at the onset of the Internet and online travel agencies (OTAS), and agents got through both innovations just fine.
As history has shown, nothing beats human interaction – even ChatGPT thinks so. When we asked it why ChatGPT is good for the travel industry, it provided a long list of reasons – from answering flight inquiries and providing virtual tours of destinations, to recommending local restaurants and analyzing customer reviews – but also wrote this at the end of its response:
“While ChatGPT can offer many benefits to the travel industry, it’s important to note that it’s not a replacement for human interaction, especially in situations where personalized attention, complex problem-solving, or emotional empathy are required. Combining the capabilities of ChatGPT with the expertise of human agents can create a more comprehensive and effective customer experience in the travel industry.”
To prove this point, news recently broke about a Microsoft travel guide mistakenly including the Ottawa Food Bank on a list of tourist recommendations for Ottawa, Canada. The oversight, first spotted by Paris Marx, was presumably a result of artificial intelligence, which Microsoft News and MSN have used to replace dozens of its journalists, as reported in a 2020 article by The Verge. Microsoft, however, is putting the blame on human error, saying that the oversight was due to a combination of “algorithmic techniques with human review.”
It’s also worth noting that with the standard version of ChatGPT, the cut-off date for up-to-date information is currently September 2021. When we asked it for recommendations for new all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean in this March 2023 article, it suggested Sandals Royal Barbados (opened in 2017) and Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana (opened in 2016).
BUT HOW CAN AGENTS USE CHATGPT?
So with ChatGPT itself recommending that it should be used in conjunction with travel agents’ expertise, the question remains: how can agents use it to their advantage?
When asked this question, the chatbot said agents can use it to gather information about preferences, budget, travel dates and interests to suggest destinations and itineraries, answer frequently asked questions about travel documentation, visas and baggage policies, create travel budgets by providing estimates for expenses, send clients on virtual tours, generate content for marketing materials, compose interactive quizzes to identify travel preferences, suggest additional services and upgrades, and gather post-trip feedback and identify areas for improvement.
And for the pièce de résistance, this from ChatGPT: “It’s important for travel agents to integrate ChatGPT seamlessly into their customer interactions and ensure that there’s a smooth transition to human agents when necessary, especially for complex or emotionally sensitive matters.”
Jim Nathan, VP Marketing, Travel Leaders Network in Alexandria, VA, tells Travelweek that many TL agents are already using AI in their day-to-day operations.
“AI is being used by many travel advisors who have spent a few hours to give it a try after learning how to leverage its power. They are using it to create first drafts of social media posts, client newsletters, Google Ad headlines, advisor bios on CanadianTravelAgents.ca, blog posts, podcasts, sample itineraries and more,” says Jim Nathan, VP Marketing, Travel Leaders Network in Alexandria, VA.
And even more, adds Nathan, AI can be a great brainstorming partner: “You can give ChatGPT the details of the past three trips your clients took and ask it to suggest three places they are likely to enjoy based on their interests.”
Flemming Friisdahl, Founder and CEO of The Travel Agent Next Door, is also seeing AI being used among its agents “to get ideas about programs and things to do in destinations they are not fully aware of.” He also tells Travelweek that TTAND is using it to help create informative itinerary programs for clients to receive before departure.
A FEW WORDS OF CAUTION
As intuitive as it is, agents will still need to comb over everything ChatGPT spits out for them, whether it’s a suggested itinerary or a country’s entry requirements, to ensure that all information is current. Remember, it may not take into account recent business closures, new hotels and attractions, or updated travel policies, particularly those after September 2021.
As Friisdahl notes, ChatGPT “is a very useful tool and very easy to use, however, you still need to review what is presented to make sure you are comfortable with it,” he says.
Nathan also stresses the importance of fact-checking, cautioning agents against simply copying and pasting the AI output.
“Facts must be diligently checked as AI content can have facts wrong. Also, there is some concern that there might possibly be plagiarism issues if one simply takes the output without customizing it to your personality, business model and target audience,” says Nathan.
A FEW TIPS TO GET STARTED
Of course, not everyone is tech-savvy and as easy as it may be to use ChatGPT, there’s still a small learning curve to it. But, the key thing is to just start – and, as Friisdahl says, Google it.
“You are going to have to want to use it, and you are going to have to take a few minutes – literally – to learn how to use it. There are some good learning tools on YouTube and Google, for instance,” he says.
Nathan recommends signing up for a free account with ChatGPT or Claude 2, a similar advanced large language model developed by Anthropic AI, and start experimenting with prompts for any number of daily content tasks like social media posts and headlines for blogs.
“The more specific you are in the purpose, format, word count, your personal voice, the tone and the target audience, the more on target you will see the output is. You can always ask for the tool to revise the content based on further refinements you want,” says Nathan.
SHOULD TRAVEL AGENTS BE WORRIED ABOUT THE FUTURE?
It doesn’t look like ChatGPT is going anywhere anytime soon, so the sooner travel agents figure out a way to use it to their advantage, the better.
Says Nathan: “Those who throw up their hands and refuse to try it out may find themselves losing out on business going to competitors who take advantage of this fantastic tool. AI is on a fast track to continually up the game. Those who leverage the tool and focus on their niche expertise will grow even stronger.”
Friisdahl, who’s more concerned about the potential of fraud than the possible demise of travel agents (“You could be on a Zoom call and may not be talking to the person you think you’re talking to”), says it’s not a question of whether AI is good for the travel industry or not.
“It’s a new platform that we need to fully understand and manage. I do believe there are some great benefits to AI and we continue to evaluate how we can apply this very useful tool,” says Friisdahl.
But if you ever find yourself doubting your role in travel’s ecosystem amid the onslaught of AI technology, remember this from Nathan: “ChatGPT has never experienced fine white sand between its toes, nor has it seen the wonder of the Great Wall of China. Your passion and relationship-building will always trump content from a machine, no matter how intelligent it is.”